Jason Rogers, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist.
In today’s blog, I take a close look at the ever-critical relationship between the coach and referee. Given the different agendas of both roles, it’s natural for tension to arise. However, a great coach understands how to manage the delicate balance between standing up for his or her student and overstepping the line. For this article, I spoke with my former teammate Ivan Lee – six-time National Champion, men’s saber Olympian, and national-level referee – who was kind enough to offer some insight into his mindset while presiding over the piste.
Unfortunately, when disagreements occur, many coaches try to apply brute force to the problem. While walking the venue floor, it’s all too common to see at least a handful of men and women throwing up their arms in disgust and cursing under their breath. Whether conscious or not, the strategy of this approach aims to pressure a referee into providing favorable calls.
While Ivan suggests that intimidation may occasionally work on inexperienced referees, it is not a long term strategy. The risk, of course, is upsetting the apple-cart, which can lead to unintended consequences. He says that he would never retaliate the fencer for a coach's mistake. But he also notes that he’s not willing to play that game.
During the 2008 qualification season, I came up against a top Italian fencer at a World Cup in Algeria. As the bout neared the end, I tied up the score at 13-13. The Italian, unhappy with the call, stomped his feet in disgust. Then, the coach joined in with an over-the-top display of frustration. Together, they were too much, and the Italian received a red card at the most crucial moment of the bout. I went on to win, a result that proved to be one of the most critical to my qualifying that season. The lesson for coaches is that if you are in the habit of making enemies, pretty soon, you are going to realize that you don’t have any friends.
Among these intimidation techniques, there are two that really get his goat. The first is the moment that a coach turns criticism of a call into a personal attack. “I’m not attacking you as a coach,” Ivan says. “Why are you attacking me as a ref?” At this point, he’s heard them all – “stick to being a fencer,” “stick to refereeing saber,” this list goes on – and he’s developed a pretty thick skin when others take this tact. Which is why these types of insults can only hurt the coach and fencer. If you aren’t happy with the call, you can say so without being unnecessarily aggressive.
The second occurs when a coach makes an accusation of foul play. Both Ivan and I fenced with a generation of Americans that became accustomed to biased calls from foreign refs – we were once explicitly told by a European referee why he was unfair to us in a team. But this is the number one way to cross the line. Any experienced referee will guard his or her reputation of impartiality above all. Ivan says that when he’s had that claim leveled against him, it resulted in an immediate black card.
Another of the traps that coaches fall into is failing to see the bigger picture. Because they spend so much time with their students in the gym, they have a tendency to watch only what their student is doing, rather than the opponent. As a result, they often complain to the referee when they observe what they believe to be a successfully executed action. “'My student did this action’ they often say,” Ivan recounts. “My response is ‘that may be true, but the opponent did a stronger action.’”
Ivan encourages coaches to remind themselves that their opinion is always going to come with a natural bias. The best coaches are the ones that can maintain the same level of objectivity as the referees.
There are constructive ways of approaching the referee. In an instance like the one mentioned above, it’s best not to argue. Instead, Ivan suggests that coaches articulate to the referee what their student is trying to do. A referee is always going to attempt to maintain consistency, but this can help the referee keep an eye out for new cues on future touches.
From my own personal experience, asking a referee to explain a call – and actually listening to the response – can a helpful way to begin this conversation. Another, is to actually verbalize when the referee is doing a good job, even if a touch has been awarded to the opponent. If your sole interactions are the ones in which you are being critical, they are less likely to find a receptive audience.
Tournaments are high-pressure environments, so disagreements are always going to occur. However, as a coach, it’s essential to make sure the proper respect is paid to the referee. Remember, just like you and your fencer, they are always trying to do their best. So, refrain from attacking their reputation or questioning their impartiality. Instead, offer your questions politely, so that, together, you can make sure that your fencer is getting the touches that he or she deserves.
Jason Rogers is an Olympic silver medalist, two-time Olympian in men’s saber and founder of Better Fencer, a website offering advice and insights from the best in the sport of fencing. Download Better Fencer’s free eBook, “10 Mistakes All Fencers Should Avoid.”